China is undergoing a historic upheaval beyond the imagination of even the best of experts on China until only a month ago. Since ‘The Republic of China became a communist ‘People’s Republic of China in 1949, any individual daring even to raise an accusing finger at the communist regime was bound to be roughed up and handcuffed within a few minutes and consigned to the pitless black hole of Chinese jails or, even the firing squad. In President Xi Jinping’s era, the Orwellian network of millions of informers and omnipresent Gestapo-like dreaded Public Security Bureau (PSB) police officers keep an eye on every citizen’s every movement. A network of hundreds of millions of close-circuit TV cameras, supported by artificial intelligence and every imaginable tool of modern technologies, can predict and preempt or brutally smash – any unwanted public gathering in any corner of today’s communist China.
But last week witnessed an explosion of public frustration and anger against President Xi Jinping’s ‘Zero-Covid’ policy and endless’ home arrest’ – fancifully presented as ‘quarantine’ – of millions of citizens. Such was the force of pent-up anger of ordinary Chinese citizens that the police barricades blew away, and all PSB’s algorithms and crowd management tools simply evaporated in the Chinese streets. Students and commoners from more than a hundred universities, over a hundred cities, thousands of quarantined factories and innumerable homes filled the streets to demand Xi and the CCP step down.
Despite heavy firewalling of China’s internet, TV, Mobile phones and news media, the details and videos of public demonstrations have overwhelmed international social media. Visuals of students holding flowers, candles and symbolic ‘white-paper placards’ on street corners and petty shopkeepers knocking down police barriers which blocked public entry to their shops and restaurants reflect the intensity of public anger against Xi and his communist coterie ruling today’s China.
The last similar anger against the communist regime in China was witnessed three decades ago in June 1989, when millions of Chinese youths from universities came out in over 400 cities to demand democracy. The erstwhile Premier Li Peng and the ‘Paramount’ leader Deng Xiaoping deployed over three hundred thousand soldiers armed with guns and machine guns to quell the uprising. PLA’s army tanks rolled out to physically run over the demonstrating youths to finally crush the democracy movement. Over a hundred thousand children are estimated to have been killed in the Communist action, but the Chinese regime never released any formal figures. Over the past three decades, every trace and remnant of the democracy-uprising has been erased. Even a remote reference to ‘June 1989’ is punished as a crime against the nation.
It does not mean that post-1989, China witnessed no public demonstrations. There were thousands of events when people’s anger against the forcible land acquisition for factories, dams, mines and new cities spilt over in streets. But all such demonstrations were local and were quelled with a firm hand at the local police and administration levels. To keep more serious freedom movements in Tibet, Xinjiang (East Turkistan), Southern Mongolia, and now in Hong Kong, PLA-PSB-CCP-based extraordinary and draconian permanent security systems are always in action despite international protest.
However, this time the wrathful spread of the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan has worked as the trigger of public anger against Xi’s communist government. In its initial days, when the entire Chinese system was focused on suppressing the news of COVID-19 and denying its occurrence, the virus invaded the world community. It spread across China in the ensuing months. A fresh assessment of past developments shows that Beijing’s grand claims about being ‘the first to develop an anti-Covid vaccine were false and proved self-destructive. An ineffective and poor vaccine proved to be a dud and a placebo – labelled as a ‘vaccine’ but as effective as plain water. Xi’s arrogance against importing more effective vaccines from the West or India helped the virus spread quickly across China. There are reasons to believe that Xi and his cohorts in the CCP used the blanket of secrecy of quarantine to whisk away his political opponents and potential ‘trouble makers’ before the 20th Congress of the Party in October.
Using police force to implement Xi’s ‘Zero-Covid’ policy and to force many hundred million citizens to remain locked for over 100 days without sufficient supplies of groceries, medicine, money, and even electricity only helped raise the levels of public anger and frustration to the brim. The first signs of public anger came out in the third week of September when 27 citizens were killed in a bus accident on September 19. These people were forcibly lifted from their homes and transported to a quarantine camp. Public demonstrations and strong reactions on social media reflected people’s anger against Xi’s government.
On November 24, a devastating fire in a multi-storied residential building of Han settlers in Urumqi of Xinjiang roasted a dozen residents alive. The building was left burning for three hours due to Covid barricades and restrictions on movement imposed by the Chinese police and local administration. Video clips of helpless residents jumping from higher floors and falling to instant death overwhelmed Chinese social media. The deluge of videos of this event and other demonstrations was too enormous for the internet firewall handlers of CCP to control their spread and resulted in public reactions. A range of underground software to circumvent the official firewall came in handy for social media users to upload these videos on international networks like Twitter and download them again after the official system deleted them from WeChat and other Chinese platforms. The proverbial last straw came from the live broadcasts of the ongoing FIFA football World Cup in Qatar when over a billion Chinese audience of CCTV officials discovered how thousands of football fans from across the world were cheering their teams without wearing masks or observing any social distancing. The official handlers of the live telecast soon started blurring the crowd images. Still, it only added to the public anger against the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy and its patron – President Xi Jinping.
A strange coincidence brought alive the June 1989 ghosts of Tien Amen Square. The death of a liberal communist leader and former President Hu Jintao during the 1989 uprising gave a sound reason for the demonstrators to call for removing the draconian communist rule. Similarly, the death of former President Jiang Zemin on November 30, the peak day of pan-China demonstrations, gave a good excuse to the demonstrators to come out in the streets with flowers and candles in the name of offering’ national condolence’. There are indications that most of the anti-Xi group leaders in the CCP and the PLA, who Xi had purged before the 20th Congress, have put their weight behind the ongoing demonstrations. In the October Congress, Xi had not only ensured his reelection but was also able to implant his own choice of leaders in the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee.
The latest news shows that over a hundred universities across China have been ordered to be closed, and students have been asked to return to their homes to keep them away from public demonstrations. To alleviate the public anger, Covid restrictions like mass quarantine have been lifted from many cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai. But the demonstrators have all the reasons to take it as their first victory and raise their push to a shove. Since Xi took over in 2012, China’s perpetually worsening economic scene has only made things worse for Xi.
All this leaves limited choices before Xi and his coterie in the CCP. He can order a complete U-turn in his ‘Zero-Covid’ policy to cool down public anger and announce dramatic economic reforms. But it’s easier said than can be done in an economy that is seriously infected by corruption and almost bankruptcy of most of the economy’s main drivers like the real estate and the banks. Otherwise, he can follow the simple route taken by his predecessor, Li Peng and Deng Hsiaoping and roll out the PLA and its tanks to curb the uprising.
But before Xi takes any such decision, he must realize that unlike the youths of June 1989, who were guided by idealism, the new generation of demonstrators in the Chinese streets is different. Directed by Deng, the ‘Paramount Leader’ who taught the people of China that “It is virtuous to be rich”,
China’s new generation is highly ambitious and has tasted the fruits of economic prosperity and its associated comforts and privileges. Unlike the youths of June 1989, who relied on the strength of mouth-to-ear communication, the new generation is armed with lethal tools of mass communication like the internet and mobile phone, which can rally millions in an instant on the switch of a button. They can convert the meek protest voice of ordinary Chinese citizens into a thunderous roar of a tsunami.